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Brucellosis in dogs – is it a big deal?

Brucellosis is on the rise in the U.K. due to the increased number of dogs being imported from abroad. Thankfully, it is still uncommon here. However, following the first confirmed dog-to-human case of Brucella canis in the UK recently, it’s important that we are all aware of this important infectious disease. 

What is Brucellosis?

Canine Brucellosis is an infectious disease, caused by bacteria (Brucella canis). Brucellosis is not endemic in the UK, meaning we don’t usually see cases here. However, with an increase in the number of dogs being adopted from high-risk countries, cases here are becoming more common.

Brucellosis is infectious, meaning it can be passed between dogs. Importantly, it is zoonotic, meaning it can also transfer from dogs to humans.

What are the symptoms of Brucellosis in dogs?

Many of the signs of Brucellosis in dogs are non-specific, meaning the symptoms can also be caused by many other diseases. The signs include:

  • Lethargy, or lack of energy
  • Back pain
  • Enlarged glands (lymph nodes)
  • Reduced sex drive

More specific signs include:

  • Abortion
  • Failure to thrive in puppies
  • Infertility (in males and females)
  • Swollen, painful testicles

Dogs can also be infected but not show any clinical signs at all. Worryingly, these dogs are still infectious.

Symptoms seen in people are different from those seen in dogs, with people tending to experience flu like symptoms. People who have a compromised immune system (for example pregnant women, cancer patients, the elderly and very young) are at higher risk from Brucellosis. 

How is Brucellosis spread?

Brucellosis is usually spread between dogs through mating, or through contact with any bodily fluids relating to the reproductive tract. This means contact with sperm, vaginal discharge (including when in season), or material from an abortion or birth. Brucellosis can also be spread from the bitch to the puppy in the uterus, or through the milk.

Less commonly, Brucellosis can be spread through contact with urine, stools, saliva or discharge from the nose. 

Brucellosis can be spread from dogs to humans via the same routes.

Can you test for Brucellosis?

As is usually the case, there is no test that is 100% accurate. This means your vet would use a combination of history (for example whether they have travelled abroad recently, been in contact with an infected dog or have been mated), a physical exam and testing. 

Testing involves a blood test, or a series of blood tests. There are several options for blood tests. Some look for Brucella canis itself (by culture), or for DNA from the bacteria; however this method can give false negative results (meaning the test comes back negative when the dog is actually infected). However, it cannot give false positives, meaning if the test comes back as positive, your dog is definitely infected. Other blood tests look for the presence of antibodies to Brucella canis in the blood. This is called serological testing, and this method has a much lower risk of false negatives. However, it can take between 2 weeks and 3 months for a dog to produce antibodies, so repeat testing may be required.

Products of abortion or birth can also be used to test for infection, by culturing or looking for DNA from Brucella canis

How is Brucellosis treated?

Unfortunately, Brucellosis is very difficult to cure. Once a dog is infected, they are considered infected for life.

Sadly, this means euthanasia is usually the only way to stop the dog from suffering, and to stop them from spreading the disease (which is important to protect people, as well as other dogs). Even using a combination of antibiotics and neutering does not guarantee a cure, as the bacteria can remain in parts of the body which the antibiotics cannot reach. This means they would continue to suffer flare-ups of disease, as well as continuing to infect people and other dogs. There is also no way of testing to prove whether or not the treatment has worked. This means that attempting treatment is not recommended, for the sake of the dog and for protecting public health.

Take home message?

Brucellosis is a devastating infectious disease, which poses a risk to both dogs and humans. If you are considering importing or rescuing a dog from abroad, it’s important to ensure they are tested for Brucellosis before they travel to the U.K. This is to protect you, your family, other dogs, other people, and to save you the heartache if they turn out to be infected. 

If you suspect that your dog is infected with Brucella canis, then you must contact your vet immediately. 

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